In particular, I notice that Clare lives and suggests discernment as a path of purification: purification of the gaze, of the heart, and of the will.
Purification of the gaze
The starting point is the reality in which we find ourselves; the reality that “we are”, that each of us “is” by nature and by grace. Preconceptions and prejudices can distort our reading of what is going on within us, in our community, in the Church, or in society. Is this not a factor in many misunderstandings, misconceptions and conflicts?
Purify the gaze to see how God sees us, without distorting filters. Clare reminds us that by being like Jesus, making his gaze our own, we can see reality in truth, beyond the changes produced by sin: “He is the radiance of eternal glory, is the brightness of eternal light and the mirror without blemish. Gaze upon that mirror each day, O Queen and Spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your face in it,” (4LAg14-15); for surely “in your light we see light” (Ps36:10).
Purification of the heart
If a pure gaze reads reality in the truth of God, it is the heart that judges it, evaluates it, and interprets it. Discernment as judgment is the next step in which reality is confronted with the values that support and guide our journey of life.
Conversion, like breathing, is the essential measure for Christians to continue living. Through experience, Clare knows how easily the heart hardens, gets distracted, gets confused; that is why she rejoices in seeing Agnes of Prague:
Pride and vanity prevent a correct judgment of reality because they close one in on oneself, rather than opening to God or to others. Genuine discernment requires a refining of the taste for the things of God, being able to recognise the scent and taste of the Gospel in the events of life and in the people we meet.
Purification of the will
The process of discernment is directed towards feeling challenged by the word of God in order to live in obedience to Him. It is aimed at dwelling within history in an evangelical way, following the footsteps of Jesus so that the kingdom of God may grow in the world.
It is good to choose whatever keeps us united to the Lord, and to reject whatever separates us from Him. Clare is able to turn down the offer of Pope Gregory IX – to be released from the bond of highest poverty and to accept the possessions that he offered – and declare with simplicity and truth: “Holy Father, I never wish to be freed from following Christ” (LegsC14). And she exhorts Agnes of Prague, in a similar situation, to embrace the poor Crucified One (Cf.2LAg17-18).
The process of discernment is directed by the word of God in order to live in obedience to Him; it is aimed at dwelling within history in an evangelical way, following the footsteps of Jesus so that the kingdom of God may grow in the world. Our projects are good if they are not ‘only ours’, if they blossom, like a root, from our willingness to collaborate with all our hearts in the work that God is already doing.”
This was a reflection of Friar Michael Perry, our Minister General, in his letter to the Order and to the sisters of the Second Order for the Solemn Feast of Clare of Assisi in 2019. Although it is based on what transpired at the Plenary Council of the Order of Friars Minor in Nairobi earlier this year, this reflection is apt as we consider the challenges facing the Custody of St Anthony Malaysia- Singapore-Brunei, and in light of the coming Chapter that will determine the Custody’s direction for the next three years.
St Clare of Assisi was a close companion of St Francis of Assisi. Gender discrimination did not allow her to follow St Francis as the brothers did. Instead, she and the women who followed her were put into a monastic structure. Prevented from adopting St Francis’ mendicant way of life, St Clare nonetheless opened herself to the Spirit of the Lord and his holy manner of working both in prayer and in action.
She held true to the Franciscan/Gospel project stated in the Rule of 1221 that calls for living an evangelical life (poverty, chastity, and obedience) of conversion and penance in minority, simplicity, joy, and mutuality of care (fraternity) and service (mission) in following in the footsteps of Christ Crucified as Francis did.
In St Clare’s process of discernment was, like in St Francis’, an optimistic and joyous trust in God and the goodness that the world can offer. She was unlike other abbesses of her time. She regularly washed the feet of the sisters returning to her monastery. She tended to the sick sisters and even washed their bedding. She sent the extern sisters out. She encouraged mutuality of care and love among the sisters even in the administration of the monastery and Order.
St Clare transformed and offered an alternate reality of women monasticism of passivity and removal from the world to one of activism and engagement of the world. She and her sisters became mendicants-in- monastery and fraternity-in-mission.
St Clare’s daring, her commitment to the Franciscan/Gospel project of St Francis, her trust in the Spirit of the Lord, and her courage in the face of adversity can be reminders to us as we live our own Christian faith and life. For us brothers of the Custody, St Clare is both a reminder and a challenge as we look back on the past three years to understand the past and present to plan for the future now and in the coming months.
If we are true to our Franciscan project and open to the Spirit “following the footsteps of Jesus so that the kingdom of God may grow in the world”, we can move forward as a fraternity-in-mission and in our own personal conversion, from good to better.
May we hold on to God and our Gospel project as St Clare did. In words of St Clare to St Agnes of Prague (2nd Letter): “What you hold, may you hold, what you do, may you do and not stop. But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness, believing nothing, agreeing with nothing that would dissuade you from this commitment or would place a stumbling block for you on the way, so that nothing prevents you from offering your vows to the Most High in the perfection to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.”
Francis life is that of his meeting with Sultan al- Malik al-Kāmil in 1219. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, and since Francis opposed all killing, he sought the blessing of the Cardinal, who was chaplain to the Crusader forces, to go and preach the Gospel to the Sultan. The Cardinal told him that the Muslims only understood weapons, and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was kill them. However, Francis persisted and at last, the Cardinal agreed he could go, although he was certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother travelling with him, would die as martyrs. The two left the Crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …”
They were captured and brought before the Sultan, who asked if they wished to become Muslim. Francis replied that they had come to seek his conversion, and if they failed, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s Gospel.
The Sultan was deeply impressed by Francis’ courage and sincerity, and invited him to stay. For a month, Francis and the Sultan met daily. Although neither converted the other, the Sultan had such fondness for his guests that he spared their lives and allowed them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control. He also presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn that is today among the relics kept in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi. It is recorded that Francis and Malik al-Kāmil parted as brothers.
How different history would be if the crusades had not happened. During the First Crusade, no one was spared when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Men, women and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the Crusaders’ horses waded in blood.
During the Fifth Crusade, as Christianity in the West preached the holiness of war, Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness. In a sense, Francis became the soldier he had dreamt of becoming as a boy; he was as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defence of others. However, there was a crucial difference. Francis wanted not the conquest but the conversion of his adversary.
Francis’ actions – equivalent to leaping into a furnace – were possible because nothing was more important to him than Christ and His Kingdom. As Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “They are truly peacemakers who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”